Feb. 27th, 2010

tispity: (Book pile)
When I asked recently on here the general consensus regarding my bookblog seemed to be that you either liked seeing these posts or didn't usually read them but were happy for them to be here and just skip over them. So the book blog is staying put. And here's the latest instalment:

Love in the Time of the Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

All that was needed was shrewd questioning, first of the patient and then of his mother, to conclude once again that the symptoms of love were the same as those of cholera.

This, the first Marquez I have tackled, is a far-reaching novel that manages at once to be compassionate and cynical. Its themes are grand and universal: love - in all its forms, age, memory, death and the nature of devotion. Set in an unnamed Caribbean town between the late nineteenth- and early twentieth century, it tells the story of Florentino Ariza and his love for one Fermina Daza. As a youth, almost dying for love, he courts her in the most traditional sense with poetry, moonlight serenades and an endless stream of letters but Fermina rejects him to marry instead to marry a forward thinking doctor whose devotion to modernity and progress seems to be the antidote to Florentino's crazed passion. With grand brush strokes Marquez then paints in the pattern of the rest of the lives of these two characters as Florentino vows that he shall never love another and is prepared to wait his entire life to win Fermina back. As he gains fame and power as the rising star of the local riverboat company he has relationships with many different kinds of women, but his heart, it is implied, is reserved for Fermina. It is no spoiler to say that the two are finally reunited in the very twilight of their lives because it is typical of the Latin American style of writing to give away the plot very early on - it is the journey not the destination that matters here. And I have to say the final chapters of this novel contain some of the most beautiful and moving prose I have ever read.

What I like most about Love in the Time of the Cholera is its duality. As the central love/disease comparison suggests, Arizia's devotion can be read at once as an winningly romantic grand passion and as an act of supreme selfishness. It is notable that in his single-minded devotion to Fermina he unwittingly destroys the lives of several other women he encounters along the way just as, up until the final pages, he remains blind to the fatal environmental destruction of the forests wreaked by his company and the constant quest for wood for the boilers of his boats. There is an old Renaissance English expression "making babies" which doesn't mean what it means now, rather it is a comment on the selfishness of the lover who, gazing at their object of adoration, sees a tiny image of themselves "a baby" reflected in their beloved's eyes. It is that above all things - the idea of themselves as someone who is loved, rather than any of the qualities of the person they claim to love - that fuels their desire. The image is never used in this novel but it came to my mind several times as I was reading. Anyway, I highly recommend this as a book that is simultaneously recklessly sexy and searchingly intelligent. Apparently there is a film of it but I have no desire to see it as I can't imagine anything on screen even beginning to match the beauty of Marquez's prose.

Ingenious Pain by Andrew Miller

All that talent! True he was a hard and unlovable man before. But useful; by God he was. What does the world need most - a good, ordinary man, or one who is outstanding, albeit with a heart of ice, of stone? Hard one that.

I loved this, although despite its melodramatic subject-matter, the novel is written with such understated subtlety that even having finished it I remain fascinated and would be quite ready to read it again straight off in the hope of answering my many lingering questions. James Dyer is a child of the Enlightenment and from birth he is quite impervious to pain of all kinds. The novel follows his career from village fair con-artist, through freak-show exhibit to eminent surgeon and even inmate of "Bedlam" the famous lunatic asylum. The novel's geographical scope is similarly exhilarating: extending from rural Somerset across Europe to the icy splendour of imperial Russia. It is a compelling read, though often a brutal and gory one since James' lack of physical empathy makes him an expert surgeon (he does not feel for the patients he is cutting at all and thus is able to operate with hitherto unknown precision) and his pioneering operations - as well as those of his contemporaries - are often described in devastating detail. The scene involving a fatal attempt to separate conjoined identical twins is going to leave me chilled for a very long time to come.

The novel's central question is about what makes us human: we need pain in our lives, it suggests, in order to empathise with and relate others. But too much fellow-feeling can also be disabling, as the novel later demonstrates. Where is the correct balance? I really can't think of another novel quite like this one and while I would have liked to see certain characters more developed (particularly the magical Mary, I have so many questions still about Mary, though I'm sure that's what Miller intends) I would definitely recommend this as a real page-turner: an adventure at once magical, social, gothic, historical and philosophical, Ingenious Pain really has something for everyone except perhaps those lacking a strong stomach for gory details!

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September 2010

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